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Earthquake map reveals liquefaction risks in Bay Area neighborhoods

Portions of the Mission, the Castro, and the Haight among areas of high risk during major shaker

Crews demolish a collapsed apartment building in the Marina District following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.
Photo by AP Photo/George Nikitin

No place in the Bay Area is safe when it comes to the inevitable, devastating earthquakes that loom on the horizon. But some neighborhoods are better situated than others.

The California Geological Survey (CGS) updated its Seismic Hazard Zone map this month, revealing the most dangerous places in the Bay Area during phenomena like liquefaction and landslides following a major earthquake.

CGS defines a major earthquake as measuring 5.5 or greater on the Richter scale. CGS explains that hazard zones are areas of particular danger even relative to usual earthquake risks:

“Although strong ground shaking is responsible for most earthquake-related damage, these zones identify areas where earthquake hazards other than structural shaking—specifically ground failures during an earthquake—are more likely.​”

In liquefaction zones, “saturated sand and silt take on the characteristics of a liquid during the intense shaking of an earthquake,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

During violent quakes, seemingly solid ground can turn to the consistency of cake batter, collapsing overhead buildings and infrastructure.

“The highest hazard areas are concentrated in regions of man-made landfill, especially fill that was placed many decades ago in areas that were once submerged bay floor,” notes USGS.

Liquefaction zones in green, according to CGS.
California Geological Survey

According to the CGS map, this means that places like the Marina, the Financial District, the majority of SoMa, South Beach, the East Cut, Treasure Island, Ocean Beach, India Basin, Hunters Point, and Candlestick Point are all in danger from the phenomenon.

But so too are smaller slices of neighborhoods where liquefaction concerns don’t usually brook as much attention, such as significant portions of the Mission, the Haight, Miraloma, Ingleside Terraces and SF State University, and the Castro.

Outside of San Francisco, the entire city of Alameda lies within a liquefaction zone, as does most of San Leandro and Hayward. West Oakland and most of Emeryville face liquefaction risks, as does the western flank of Berkeley.

In the South Bay and along the Peninsula, one huge liquefaction zone extends from SFO down through most of Santa Clara and San Jose.

Map users may search for a physical address to see what kind of quake hazards that property may face. The maps and accompanying app can also be used to determine which potential quake hazards must be disclosed when attempting to sell property in California.

CGS notes that “due to limitations in data availability and mapping at regional scales, it is expected that some of these hazards will produce damaging ground failures outside the delineated zones in future earthquakes.”

But the agency adds that “the majority of occurrences will be within the zoned areas.”

Earthquakes of 5.5 or greater are relatively common (in geologic terms) along Bay Area faults, but may become more or less frequent depending on other recent eruptions.

As CGS researchers wrote in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America in 2002:

Cycles of seismicity and quiescence were associated with the Bay area earthquakes of 1868, 1906, and 1989. The 1868 earthquake on the Hayward fault was preceded by 12 earthquakes of M ≥5.5 from 1855 to 1866, within 60 km of the Hayward fault, and was followed by 13 quiet years.

The 1906 San Andreas fault event was preceded from 1881 to 1903 by 18 earthquakes of M ≥5.5 and was followed by quiescence, with only three earthquakes of M ≥5.5 until 1954. The Bay area has been seismically quiet at the M ≥5.5 level since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and its 1990 aftershocks, which contrasts with the 10 years before 1989, when five M 5.5–6.2 events occurred.

The Loma Prieta earthquake is of similar magnitude to the 1868 Hayward event and could be followed by a similarly short quiet period.

Since 2002, the Bay Area has suffered two major earthquakes: The 2007 Alum Rock quake (5.6) and the Napa quake in 2014 (6.0).

Residents can access the info via an online app that compiles the disparate maps together.